There has been a gradual rise in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) visibility in both gaming and game development discussions.
On one hand, it presents itself as characteristics or behaviors of certain characters. At best, it helps portray the ASD community with a few traits they can identify with and provides familiarity and comfort. At worst, it caricatures and negatively stereotypes the characters, or sets the narrative towards the characters in an ableist manner that adheres to stigmatization.
An example is David Archer from Mass Effect 2 Overlord DLC, whose game developers have stated to intentionally leave his supposed autism ambiguous so players could draw their own conclusions. Narratively, rather than presenting him as a character with agency and a unique perspective, David is reduced to a mere object of study, stripped of his autonomy and humanity, and whose autism is used as a plot device to justify the cruel experimentation and torture he experiences.
When the characterization is not outwardly irreverent or explicitly inaccurate, it can simply be a coded representation. That is, portraying certain marginalized groups through subtle or implicit cues, rather than explicit representation.
It is widely utilized to include marginalized groups in media and entertainment. While it can function as hints and a part of the joy of connecting, interpreting, and understanding characters and a story, it can also be a form of ‘breadcrumbing‘ outcast communities by hiding behind a curtain of hypothesis and possibility of coded representation and ultimately further perpetuating harmful stereotypes and marginalization.
That is well illustrated by Amy from the game with the same title. The character exhibits certain behaviors that align with common ASD traits, such as difficulty with social interaction and communication, and sensory sensitivities. Whilst not stated nor confirmed that she has ASD, some of her behavior and mannerisms align with common ASD traits, which can be validating for players who identify with those traits. However, some criticized her portrayal of ASD as being reductionist, stereotypical, and one-dimensional.
Often done to avoid controversy, misrepresentation, or backlash, it is nonetheless vital to recognize the role that intentional representation and commitment to promoting neurodiversity and reducing stigmatization takes when it comes to studios and publishers in owning up to the cause.
On the other hand, when ASD inclusivity is not carried through the characterization of certain characters, it is embedded in the narrative and/or playability of the game. This allows for a more nuanced and authentic portrayal of individuals with autism, although it is not often labeled as such.
The Nomai civilization from Outer Wilds is presented as highly advanced, with a focus on science and technology, and is implied to have had members with ASD traits. Players can decipher Nomai text and symbols, which are presented in a pattern-based language that relies heavily on visual thinking and spatial reasoning – two cognitive strengths that are often associated with ASD. By immersing players in a world that values and rewards these cognitive strengths, the game provides a positive and inclusive experience for players with ASD traits.
It is understandable that many of the characteristics also overlap with other neurodivergent disorders such as ADHD, anxiety, depression, etc; and ASD is not a definition of an individual or character, which would be dehumanizing. Therefore certain experiences or their combination will not be secular to one or the other.
“It is not that one is an autistic person, but rather that it is a person with autism,” said disability rights advocates in the 1980s and 1990s who sought to promote more respectful and empowering language when referring to individuals with disabilities.
A prime example is Sea of Solitude, which does not explicitly mention that the main character Kay has autism, but whose behavior and struggles are consistent with those associated with the autism spectrum. The developers have also stated that Kay’s character was inspired by the experiences of people on the autism spectrum, and have woven the ASD traits seamlessly into the game’s narrative, serving as a means of exploring Kay’s struggles and the challenges she faces as she attempts to reconnect with the world around her.
The subversion to the current ‘othering‘ status quo of neurodivergence and particular hostility towards autism (such as the assumed relationship between vaccines and autism) is significant.
It takes work and research to accurately portray a neurodivergence that is so eclectic in its expression, and the potential benefits are significant in fostering a more inclusive and accepting gaming community.
As an industry, we can take steps to make our games more accessible and inclusive. At Altagram, we value doing so as a duty.
If you’re looking to make your titles more inclusive and with great localization, voice-over and/or other localization services, feel free to contact us at email@example.com or on the ‘Contact Us‘ page.